Hope Colored Cataracts
I am a sucker for Barack Obama.
Even now, after the hope-colored glasses have come off (fallen to the ground, in fact, severely cracked), I am a sucker for Barack Obama. When I see him, there’s a part of me that perks up like a muscle memory that hasn’t realized just how disappointed I really am. The part that remembers what it felt like on November 4th when I watched John McCain cede the election. That night I was at a party with close friends. I had one arm over my partner’s shoulder, my other hand intertwined with his. Tears welled up in my eyes.
Maybe everyone knew what was coming next. I should have been smart enough to see it myself. For as long as I had been politically engaged, George W. Bush had been the President; after eight years, I was getting used to being a political kick ball. The Republicans used gays as a punching bag, and the Democrats treated us like a hot potato, hoping they wouldn’t get caught supporting us when the buzzer went off. I wasn’t expecting a politician to come out of nowhere and say all of the right words, to woo me in just the right way. What made Obama special to me wasn’t just that he pledged to support the gay community and push forward equal rights policies, but that he did so in front of crowds where showing support for gay rights would not be popular. During a celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, he had told a largely religious African-American crowd, “We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters, instead of embracing them.”
I was in love.
The day after Barack Obama won the election, I felt like a new man. For the first time in my adult life, this country was heading in the right direction. I thought about how I was going to start eating better. How I was going to exercise. How I was going to Get Involved. I wasn’t ashamed to be an American. I wanted to go out and buy an American flag, and hang it from my front porch. I wanted to tell my neighbor, with his four-foot wide McCain-Palin sign, that he could go fuck himself. This is my country now. We kept our “Obama for President” yard sign up well past the inauguration. We turned it so that it was aimed at our neighbor’s house. I wanted everyone who drove by to know that I had, in my own small ways, fought hard for this, and I had won.
The first sign that Obama may not be the “fierce advocate” that he promised came shortly before the inauguration. The choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation was a real blow. Warren was popular with evangelical Christians specifically because he supported their political ideologies, including denying marriage rights to same-sex couples. Warren was a fairly ominous cloud hanging over Obama’s first day as President. Still, I wanted desperately to believe that Obama’s choice had been a mistake. A hiccup. I sat back, enjoyed the party, and decided that everything would be made right in due time.
To be clear, I never expected Obama to work political miracles. I didn’t expect for America to turn into a gay utopia in a month, or even a year. There are other issues that Obama has to deal with that are just as important to me and the rest of America as my right to get married. I know that we’re fighting wars on two fronts, that the state of healthcare in this nation is a tragedy, and that the economy is collapsing around us. Unemployment is not an abstract that I see on the evening news, but something that my immediate family is struggling with. If Obama and his administration were merely taking their time on gay rights, I wouldn’t be writing this essay.
Instead, the administration has been everything from ignorant to our calls for action to downright antagonistic. In mid-June, only two weeks after the President declared June “LGBT Pride Month,” Obama’s Justice Department issued a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court. The language in the brief compared gay marriage to incest and child sexual abuse. There is significant historical precedence of the White House choosing not to defend laws currently on the books; the Obama administration did not need to defend DOMA.
As gay rights entered the mainstream media again, pressure rose for Obama to speak openly about DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), and to act. Obama continued to make the same promises he had during the campaign, words that sounded less impressive now that he was in office and still doing little. Gay soldiers are continue to be discharged from the military at the rate of two per day.
As I sat down to watch Obama’s latest address to the LGBT community, a speech to the Human Rights Campaign on October 10th, I knew full well what he was going to say. That “the road to progress is long, change is hard, and...” I’d heard it before. I could have written it for him, I’m so familiar with his rhetoric now. Yet as he spoke, I fell for him again. I let myself believe that, any moment now, Obama was going to actually going to do something. He spoke about the importance of equality and recognized that the fight for gay rights is a civil rights issue. His speech was inspiring.
Until he arrived at the topic of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: “We cannot afford to cut from our ranks people with the critical skills we need to fight any more than we can afford—for our military's integrity—to force those willing to do so into careers encumbered and compromised by having to live a lie.”
Those are powerful words. Quickly, my mood deflated and I remembered exactly why I had spent the past few months incredibly dissatisfied with Obama: He has the power to stop Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell right now. While he can’t change the law, he can suspend it until Congress has the time to address it. He can suspend the dismissals, save the military time, money and resources, and stop draining our armed forces of crucial personnel. If Obama truly meant what he said, he could do so by executive order, but he has not. Whatever his reason may be, he’s refused to take the steps necessary to start pushing this country’s policies in a more progressive direction. Here his words are empty platitudes, evidence that all of his words are suspect.
Obama hasn’t completely failed to extend rights to gays and lesbians. He granted a handful of benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is making progress through Congress. The Matthew Shepard Act, which broadens the definitions of federal hate crimes to include sexual orientation as well as gender, gender identity and disability, has passed both the House and the Senate. It waits only for Obama’s signature and he has promised to sign it. None of these movements should be ignored, or their importance minimized, but each only touches on the lives of a small portion of the LGBT population.
I haven’t given up on fighting for my rights; anything but. I never thought that I would have to write so many letters and make so many phone calls to my representatives while my party is in power. I didn’t do this much during the Bush Administration. Sure, I signed the petitions that came my way, and I bitched loudly and righteously. Now I’m doing more, though. I am making my voice heard. My representatives need to hear that my partner can lose his job if his boss discovers his sexuality, and that there isn’t a healthcare net to catch him if that happens. I can’t marry him, so I can’t add him onto my employer-paid health plan.
I would be more willing to forgive Obama his trespasses if he were doing a better job across the board. As I write this, he’s struggling to pass health care reform. Even though the bill is neutered by compromise, it’s falling shy of having the support to move forward. If this is how Obama is planning on running the show, I don’t have high hopes for his future or my rights. Equality is not something you can compromise on.
I still have an Obama sticker on my car, opposite my “I support gay marriage” sticker. The Obama sticker shows the now infamous Shepard Fairey design, with the word “Hope” spelled out in bold letters. Only now, the color is fading. The bright reds and blues have dulled. I leave the sticker there because I haven’t yet found a better metaphor for my fading hope for Obama.